Re­zon­ing fight in area known as At­lanta's red light dis­trict pits gay City Coun­cil mem­ber against LGBT crit­ics

GA Voice - - Front Page - By DYANA BAGBY dbagby@the­

Bobby Ham­mill sits in his of­fice in the new BJ Roost­ers on Cheshire Bridge Road. Opened just last month, the gay club is twice the size of its old lo­ca­tion just down the street. His neigh­bors are Jun­gle and Heretic, two other pop­u­lar gay clubs, and the Doll House, a strip club.

“I’ve lived in the area for 21 years and I un­der­stand what the com­plaints are about from the neigh­bor­hoods,” Ham­mill said. “But I per­son­ally feel what’s go­ing on is un­fair. It’s like they are prose­cut­ing peo­ple who re­ally aren’t do­ing any­thing wrong.”

What’s go­ing on, and has been go­ing on since Jan­uary, is pro­posed zon­ing changes to the Cheshire Bridge Road cor­ri­dor, long con­sid­ered At­lanta’s red light dis­trict.

Pro­posed by gay At­lanta City Coun­cilmem­ber Alex Wan, the re­zon­ing is an at­tempt to fi­nally make real a 1999 vi­sion state­ment that wanted to bring in new de­vel­op­ment and give the area a facelift that in­cludes strip­ping out strip joints and other adult busi­nesses.

In 2005, the City Coun­cil ap­proved the zon­ing changes that halted any new adult busi­nesses and en­sured new busi­nesses would pay at­ten­tion to aes­thet­ics, such as land­scap­ing and curb ap­peal. Busi­nesses such as Inserec­tion and South­ern Nights, adult nov­elty stores pop­u­lar with many LGBT pa­trons, were grand­fa­thered in and safe from the zon­ing changes. Un­til now.

Wan, a first-tem coun­cil­man who took of­fice in 2010, has pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to force the grand­fa­thered-in non-con­form­ing sex and porn shops out by 2015. Also scrubbed out of busi­ness along the thor­ough­fare would be car washes and auto re­pair busi­nesses, which fall into non-con­form­ing busi­nesses in the zon­ing ap­proved by the city as well.

The pos­si­ble dead­line may now be ex­tended un­til 2017 as Wan and Neigh­bor­hood Plan­ning Unit F seek to com­pro­mise with busi­nesses. NPU-F in­cludes Cheshire Bridge Road and is made up of Lin­dridge Martin Manor, Morn­ing­side Lenox Park, Pied­mont Heights and Vir­ginia High­land

Wan’s leg­is­la­tion, com­ing dur­ing an elec­tion year, has an­gered crit­ics in the LGBT com­mu­nity who say the sex and porn shops are part of gay At­lanta his­tory and Wan is a traitor for want­ing to rid the city of them.

“We have cus­tomers who come in and say Alex is aw­ful. But no, that’s not true. I don’t think this is a gay thing. This doesn’t im­pact us right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mute point,” Ham­mill said.


Wan is do­ing what he needs to do to get re­elected, Ham­mill said.

“I wish Alex all the best in the world. But is he just do­ing his job and rep­re­sent­ing his peo­ple? Is it a witch hunt? I don’t know,” Ham­mill said. “Ev­ery city has to have a red light dis­trict. That’s es­sen­tially what we are. If a city doesn’t have it, if this el­e­ment of peo­ple don’t have that out­let ... and they kind of need an out­let. We do of­fer some things.”

Ham­mill also said he and other gay club own­ers have been ap­proached by Michael Mor­ri­son, owner of Inserec­tion, and Galardi South En­ter­prises, own­ers of strip club Onyx, to ask for help in mak­ing the pub­lic un­der­stand gay play could be halted if the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion goes through. Ham­mill said they all just want to keep a low pro­file be­cause their busi­nesses are safe for now.

And Wan said it is time for LGBT peo­ple to move be­yond ad­vo­cat­ing for porn and sex shops.

“All of this has be­come a per­sonal at­tack on my per­ceived morals and val­ues and that’s not the case,” Wan said. “This con­ver­sa­tion that I’m be­ing a traitor to the LGBT com­mu­nity be­cause of this … If the gay agenda is 24-hour bars and sex clubs, then the truth is I’m not the rep­re­sen­ta­tive for that. And that’s how this ar­gu­ment seems to be crys­tal­liz­ing.

“This is my try­ing to honor a com­mu­nity’s vi­sion. At the same time, I kind of take is­sue with this be­lief that I’ve turned on my com-

mu­nity. Look at what I’ve done over the past three years — the pas­sage of a res­o­lu­tion by the City Coun­cil to sup­port same-sex mar­riage and Mayor Kasim Reed com­ing out in fa­vor of mar­riage equal­ity,” Wan said.

“If all of this doesn’t mean any­thing and all that is im­por­tant to our com­mu­nity is sup­port­ing porn and sex clubs … well, I would hope our com­mu­nity has big­ger goals and ob­jec­tives,” he said. “If I’m go­ing to be judged on the is­sue of just sup­port­ing porn and sex clubs, if that’s how the com­mu­nity feels at large, per­haps there may be a bet­ter can­di­date.”


Mor­ri­son, owner of Inserec­tion, who is straight and one of Wan’s loud­est crit­ics, ac­cuses Wan, among other things, of set­ting the LGBT move­ment back 30 years by try­ing to rid the city of adult busi­nesses.

“This is one of the most lib­eral streets in At­lanta … and our first openly gay coun­cil­man wants to set back the LGBT cause 30 years,” Mor­ri­son said. “If you go back down mem­ory lane, this area is where more un­der­ground cul­ture and gay clubs came about and when you come up with this kind of leg­is­la­tion that hurts gay busi­nesses, we will lose some of th­ese hard-fought bat­tle grounds.”

Mor­ri­son said Inserec­tion is a gay busi­ness be­cause it is gay peo­ple who fre­quent the store as well as work there.

“Where does he get off be­com­ing the voice of moral­ity? We’re sit­ting in 2013,” he said.

Wan points out he made sure BJ Roost­ers, Jun­gle and Heretic — three of the most pop­u­lar gay clubs in the city — are safe from pro­posed re­zon­ing leg­is­la­tion. They are lo­cated in a patch of land be­tween the north and south dis­tricts of the street set to be re­zoned Neigh­bor­hood Com­mer­cial.

Mor­ri­son said while the gay clubs may be safe for now, there is no telling what will hap­pen in the near fu­ture if Wan’s leg­is­la­tion is passed.

“I think this leg­is­la­tion is anti-gay and I think it’s anti-black. When Onyx be­came a black strip club, quite frankly the NIM­BYs didn’t want to see black youths in their neigh­bor­hoods,” he added.

Mor­ri­son voted for Wan in the last elec­tion but is now think­ing of help­ing fund an­other can­di­date to run against him.

Wan is al­ready busy build­ing his war chest so he can be ready for any op­po­si­tion, he said.


Sung Kong, owner of Kong’s Body Re­pair, a busi­ness opened by his fa­ther nearly 30 years ago on Cheshire Bridge Road, spits out Wan’s name when speak­ing about the leg­is­la­tion that would force his busi­ness to re­lo­cate or close.

“It’s al­ready un­con­sti­tu­tional why we’re grouped in there with adult busi­nesses,” he said.

“Seven years have passed and noth­ing changed and now they want to be proac­tive be­cause they think de­vel­op­ers will come,” he said. “This is stupid. I don’t know how else to say it, but it’s stupid.”

Wan said he has tried to help Kong un­der- stand that it is not him putting auto re­pair shops in with adult busi­nesses as non-con­form­ing for the changes out­lined in the 1999 study and then ap­proved in 2005 by the City Coun­cil.

“From the be­gin­ning, the leg­is­la­tion has fo­cused on the ob­jec­tives of the ‘Neigh­bor­hood Com­mer­cial’ zon­ing des­ig­na­tion that the city cre­ated way back when,” Wan said.

“For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, adult busi­nesses are deemed to be in­com­pat­i­ble with those ob­jec­tives, per­haps more be­cause of the prox­im­ity to res­i­den­tial. Auto re­pair stores and car washes are not per­mit­ted for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. In broad terms, those uses are con­sid­ered more ap­pro­pri­ate in in­dus­trial or higher in­ten­sity com­mer­cial ar­eas [and] those uses pro­mote au­to­mo­bile us­age rather than pedes­trian,” he ex­plained.


The is­sue of first al­low­ing busi­nesses to be grand­fa­thered in and then grand­fa­thered out is what deeply dis­turbs de­vel­oper Scott Selig. His com­pany, one of the largest de­vel­op­ers in the state, owns sev­eral acres of land on Cheshire Bridge Road, in­clud­ing the closed Club Life, the Colon­nade and the Cheshire Mo­tor Inn. Al­though Selig’s prop­erty is cur­rently safe with re­cent amend­ments made to the leg­is­la­tion, he fears Wan is set­ting a bad prece­dent.

“What our prob­lem is now is that eight years later they de­cided they want to take out the busi­nesses that were grand­fa­thered in,” he said. “Any place that has been re­zoned and had busi­nesses grand­fa­thered in — and then pro­posed they be re­zoned out … I’ve never even heard it pro­posed be­fore. I’ve never heard of the govern­ment com­ing and sun­set­ting out non-con­form­ing busi­nesses.”

It’s true — what Wan is propos­ing about sun­set­ting out grand­fa­thered-in busi­nesses has never been done in the city of At­lanta. But the city’s law depart­ment tells him it is le­gal to do so.

“Es­sen­tially, as I in­ter­pret [city code], it states that a struc­ture that was con­form­ing be­fore, but non-con­form­ing af­ter a change, may still op­er­ate as such, but can­not ex­pand. There are also trig­gers that void that grand­fa­ther­ing such as non-use for more than 12 months,” Wan said.

“The pro­posed strat­egy has not been used in At­lanta pre­vi­ously. The City Law Depart­ment be­lieves there is Ge­or­gia Supreme Court case law (cited in leg­is­la­tion) that grants mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties au­thor­ity to amor­tize out non-con­form­ing uses pro­vided it meets the stan­dard that the time pe­riod granted is a rea­son­able pe­riod to re­coup the busi­ness/ prop­erty owner’s in­vest­ment,” he ex­plained.


At first, Wan pro­posed non-con­form­ing busi­nesses get un­til 2015 to get out; re­cent amend­ments ap­proved by NPU-F and to be con- sidered next month by the Zon­ing Re­view Board added two more years of amor­ti­za­tion.

Jane Rawl­ings, chair of NPU-F, said it’s time to fi­nally im­ple­ment what city plan­ners and neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents and busi­nesses wanted when they put out that 1999 study.

“We would like to see the street re­de­vel­oped in a way that is con­sis­tent with the vi­sion out­lined in the Cheshire Bridge Road Cor­ri­dor Study pub­lished in 1999 while still main­tain­ing its eclec­tic and di­verse na­ture,” Rawl­ings said.

“In fact, some of the very voices com­plain­ing the loud­est about this or­di­nance are some of the very voices that shaped the Cheshire Bridge Road Cor­ri­dor Study and the 2005 re­zon­ing of the street,” she added. “It is ... my be­lief that the char­ac­ter and char­ac­ter­is­tics of a neigh­bor­hood should be de­fined by the com­mu­nity and not for the com­mu­nity.”


In­ter­est­ingly, at the same time NPU-F and the city are con­sid­er­ing cleans­ing adult busi­nesses from Cheshire Bridge Road, a wastew­a­ter plant is un­der con­struc­tion on city-owned prop­erty on Lid­dell Drive, just off Cheshire Bridge Road.

The pro­ject is “lov­ingly” la­beled “PooTank” by the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity, Rawl­ings said. The pur­pose of the $35 mil­lion plant is to re­duce san­i­tary sewer spills through­out At­lanta and it is be­ing con­structed un­der a fed­eral man­date.

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the sewer tank will hold 10-mil­lion gal­lons in a raised over­flow tank at 2061 Lid­dell Drive. A pump­ing sta­tion and elec­tri­cal sta­tion will be lo­cated at 2001 Cheshire Bridge Road, near the north end of Lenox Road.

In July 2012, Rawl­ings wrote a let­ter to Wan on be­half of NPU-F ask­ing him sev­eral ques­tions about the “Poo Tank.” In the long list of ques­tions, she noted the wastew­a­ter plant is “an­ti­thet­i­cal to the vi­sion” of the 1999 study.

Wan said he un­der­stood the con­cerns, but with­out the plant, sewage spills will con­tinue and the city will face fed­eral fines and be “put un­der a mora­to­rium for de­vel­op­ment mak­ing re­de­vel­op­ment of the Cheshire Bridge cor­ri­dor more dif­fi­cult.”

Con­cerns about smell from the plant were also ad­dressed, with Wan and the city promis­ing the lat­est tech­nol­ogy to “elim­i­nate of­fen­sive odors.”

“Plans call for tun­nel­ing di­luted sewage over­flow un­der Cheshire Bridge Road to the Lid­dell Road tank when the main sys­tem is over­ca­pac­ity, which is usu­ally about once a month,” ac­cord­ing to a July 2012 story on the Lind­bergh Lavista blog.


If the Zon­ing Re­view Board (which is the last place the pub­lic can be heard) ap­proves Wan’s plan and the leg­is­la­tion goes to the City Coun­cil and is passed, it is un­likely busi­nesses along Cheshire Bridge Road will start shut­ting down in two or even four years.

Le­gal ac­tion is likely with sev­eral of the busi­ness own­ers hav­ing plenty of cash to fight City Hall to keep their prof­itable busi­nesses in an area of the city they like and want to be.

“They can’t just come in and take your busi­nesses away from you,” said Selig. “This is re­ally a prop­erty rights is­sue.”

Pho­tos by Dyana Bagby

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